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Athlete, war hero, legend
The amazing story of Naugatuck’s Ed Poscavage
Republican-American (Waterbury, CT) – Sunday, January 27, 2013
Author: By Joe Palladino ; Republican-American
The jubilant Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes celebrate their Grey Cup victory of 1942. The team of 21 is made up of pilot trainees, 15 of whom were sent off to war in Europe. Seven of them never returned. The coach, Lew Haymond, is in the RCAF uniform at bottom right. Jake Gaudaur, the future CFL commissioner, is in the top row, taking a swig of soda pop (probably). Naugatuck’s Ed Poscavage is slightly obscured in the middle of the photo. He is at the right elbow of Gaudar, with the large smile. (photo courtesy of Canadian Football Hall of Fame)
Could Edmund W. Poscavage be one of the greatest athletes the Naugatuck Valley League has ever produced? Is it possible that he is the best ever from Naugy High?
These are difficult questions to answer or even debate because most of us have never heard the name Ed Poscavage. Until now.
Here are facts for which there is no debate: Poscavage, a Naugy grad, was a Greyhounds football star and national swimming record holder who went on to play both sports at Ohio State. Poscavage later starred on a Canadian military football team that captivated the Dominion by winning Canada’s Grey Cup in 1942.
That alone would have made Poscavage a legendary sports figure, but there is more.
Poscavage’s greatest glory came off the gridiron, as an American war hero and fighter pilot who flew 13 combat missions over Germany in World War II.
Surely, the handsome, six-foot, blue-eyed star would return to America and become a community leader and a much-admired Borough legend.
But Ed Poscavage never returned from war. His plane was shot down on a mission over Gersheim, Germany in 1945. He is buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in France, and for seven decades, his remarkable athletic accomplishments remained buried with him. His name lives on only as an engraving on a monument that stands for all-time on the Naugatuck Green, one of six dozen or so Borough citizens who died serving their country in the war.
His relative obscurity changed in 2012, however, when Canada’s Grey Cup celebrated its centennial. Canada’s all-sports television network, TSN, aired a series of documentaries, called “Engraved on a Nation,” that explored the game’s history. One show in that series, “The Photograph,” focused on the 1942 game, and the victory by the Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes, a team made up of young Canadian men training to become fighter pilots, and a strapping athlete from a place with the exotic name Naugatuck.
As the documentary took shape, something remarkable happened. For the first time in decades someone asked the question: Who was Ed Poscavage?
Who was Ed Poscavage?
How is it that an athlete as prominent and accomplished as Poscavage disappeared from memory? One of Poscavage’s last living relatives, his niece, Linda Tortorelli of Stratford, explained that the pain and loss was too great for family members to bear.
“My mother and my grandmother never talked about him,” said Tortorelli, who was 2-years-old when her uncle died in Germany. “They were just too heartbroken.”
The family hid away the pain and sorrow, and never talked about Ed Poscavage. It was not easy to turn away from his legacy, though. There are scrapbooks stuffed with photographs and newspaper clippings chronicling the Poscavage sports years at Naugatuck High.
When Tortorelli opened the scrapbooks she was stunned.
“I didn’t realize he was such a great athlete,” she said. “We knew he was a good swimmer, but not that exceptional.”
On the football team, Poscavage was a star left end on a team that had stars too numerous to mention, like Borough icons Frank Edmonds and Dick Tuckey, who went on to play in the National Football League for the Cleveland Rams and Washington Redskins.
Poscavage was All-State in football in 1932, and played for the Naugatuck team that beat bitter rival Ansonia, 32-0, in 1933.
Poscavage was at his best, however, in the water, where he crossed paths with a couple of other future Naugatuck legends. He once placed second in a Cross Harbor Swim on Long Island Sound, and the man who was third in that race would later leave his own indelible impression on NVL swimming as coach at Sacred Heart and Naugatuck, James Farrar.
Naugatuck High did not yet have a swim team, so Poscavage, who by this time had acquired the nickname “Yama,” starred with the YMCA team, swimming alongside another Naugatuck giant, the man who started the high school team and for whom the high school pool is still named, Alex “Gimbo” Sullivan.
Newspaper clippings tell of a swimmer who was a state backstroke champion and who set local and state records whenever he jumped in the water. Most notably, on June 9, 1936, Poscavage broke a nine-year national backstroke record in a meet at Yale’s Payne Whitney Pool [dash] it was not yet named for Bob Kiphuth [dash] when he swam the 440 yard back in 5:49.2. Poscavage broke his record the next day when he swam 5:43.8.
The meet was part of an invitational series at Yale that featured college champions leading up to the U.S. Olympic trials in Providence. Poscavage was not invited to the trials. “He was ninth,” Tortorelli said, “and they only took the top five.”
The 1936 Summer Olympic Games were in Berlin, and are best remembered for the track and field performances of Jesse Owens. It is not difficult to imagine that Poscavage, at the time, might well have rued his missed opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Germany.
He then went off to Ohio State where he swam and was part of a Buckeyes Big Ten championship, and two second-place finishes in the NCAA championships.
It is mentioned in the TSN documentary that Poscavage played football at Ohio State, but the school’s sports information department could not find his name on an Ohio State roster. However, a Toronto Star article from December, 1942, mentions that Poscavage was a “regular with Ohio State” at end on the football team.
Tortorelli said the family never mentioned football at Ohio State. “I remember hearing something about a broken arm,” she said.
But in the Toronto Star story Poscavage details the depth of the top American college teams, where there is a “squad of about 60 men with first, second, third, fourth and fifth teams. With each position five or six deep.”
Poscavage, who also played and coached water polo at Ohio State, was probably on the football team, but deep in the Buckeyes’ depth chart and not on game-day rosters.
The Call to Duty
Poscavage graduated from Ohio State in 1941 with a degree in business administration. He had worked as a lifeguard during his summers, and briefly held a sales position with Sears, Roebuck & Co. But there was a war in Europe and Poscavage seemed desperate to get in it.
“He was the only son,” Tortorelli said. “He did not have to go.”
But go he did. Poscavage enlisted on Sept. 5, 1941, asked for the Army Air Corps, and was sent to Maxwell Field, now Maxwell Air Force Base, in Alabama. He did not last long in the Army Air Corps. Poscavage received an honorable discharge from the U.S. military after he crashed a plane in training. He walked away unhurt, but his dreams of being an American pilot were, at present, grounded.
In January, 1942, Poscavage took those dreams north to Canada, and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). He arrived in Toronto with thousands of Canadian recruits, and marshaled in a building called the Cow Palace at the Canadian National Exhibition.
On his first day there Poscavage met and bunked alongside a young man named Jake Gaudaur.
Most Americans will not recognize the name Gaudaur, but he is a legendary figure in Canada. Gaudaur played on two Grey Cup champion teams, served as captain of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and later president, majority owner, director and general manager of the franchise that went on to win four more Grey Cup titles in his tenure.
Gaudaur was Canada’s Pete Rozelle. He served as CFL commissioner for 16 seasons, from 1968 through 1984, and is credited with pioneering the modern era of professional football in Canada.
Gaudaur is a member of the Toronto Argonauts Hall of Fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Burlington, Ontario Hall of Fame. He received the Officer of the Order of Canada in 1985, and in 2010, three years after his death, the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Trophy was established.
But most importantly, Jake Gaudaur from Orillia, Ontario, and Ed Poscavage from Naugatuck, Conn., discovered each other.
“They were best friends from moment one,” said Diane Gaudaur, Jake’s daughter. “My father always referred to him as his best friend.”
When Gaudaur met and married Molly Scott, a former figure skater, Poscavage was his best man. While training, Poscavage met a Toronto beauty named Cynthia Claire Dawson at, of all places, a swimming pool. Dawson was a swim champion herself. They married in October, 1942. Gaudaur was best man.
Poscavage and Gaudaur were two of 130,000 airmen who signed up to go to war for Canada. Gaudaur never got into the fight. He earned his wings, but Gaudaur was so proficient as a flyer that he was ordered to stay behind in Canada and train more pilots.
Gaudaur never had the chance to fight alongside his buddies in Europe. “At the time I was disappointed that the adventure was postponed,” Gaudaur wrote in a private memoir. “But I speculated that we would meet again in England.”
That meeting with Poscavage never happened.
Poscavage earned his wings in Canada, and that was his ticket back to the U.S. military. He resigned from the RCAF, came back to the States a certified fighter pilot, rejoined the Air Corps and was assigned to Europe.
The Canadian television documentary about the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes was called simply, “The Photograph.” The picture in question shows a jubilant football team as it celebrated the Grey Cup championship of 1942. The story behind that picture, and the team, is one of triumph, tragedy, joy and heartbreak.
With Canadian professional football players in active military service, the Western Interprovincial Football Union and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union were shut down. These leagues provided the finalists for the annual Grey Cup game, so the 1942 Grey Cup was the first non-civilian tournament.
The military recruits trained under famed Toronto Argonauts coach Lew Hayman, who asked permission to pull together a football team. The Hurricanes were former college players, professionals like Gaudaur, who had already won a Grey Cup, and Poscavage, an American star.
The team of 21 players lost its first game, tied its second, and then won eight straight. Gaudaur was the snap back, Poscavage an outside wing.
The Naugatuck man scored two touchdowns in the 18-13 win over Ottawa in the Cup semifinal, and then the Hurricanes defeated the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers in the Grey Cup final, 8-5, on Dec. 5, 1942, before 12,500 fans in Toronto’s sold-out Varsity Stadium.
The tournament, the game, and the Hurricanes captivated the nation. The game was broadcast worldwide to the Canadian armed forces, and for a brief time at least, hearts and minds were turned away from war and death and loss.
The members of the Hurricanes completed military training in April of 1943. From a team of 21 men, 15 were sent to Europe. Seven never returned. One third of the team died in the liberation of Europe.
An American flyer
Once Poscavage earned his rank as Pilot Officer in the RCAF in 1943, he served with the Eastern Air Command in Halifax, the 126th Squadron in Nova Scotia, and at the RCAF Station in Goose Bay, Newfoundland.
His desire was always to serve the United States, so Poscavage resigned from the RCAF and was officially discharged June 3, 1944. He immediately re-enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was placed with the 366th Fighter Squadron, the 358th Fighter group. His wife Cynthia remained in Canada.
It took nearly four years, but First Lieutenant Edmund Poscavage was finally an American pilot. He flew 13 combat missions in his P-47 Thunderbolt, escorting bombers on missions in Europe, and attacking German airfields and installations. The missions had a horrific survival rate. As noted in the documentary, only one in four pilots got out of the war alive.
On March 11, 1945, Poscavage was part of a bombing mission on a strategic bridge in Gersheim, Germany. His plane was hit by enemy fire, broke up and crashed. Poscavage’s badly burned body was found two days later by American ground troops. He is buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France.
Poscavage died 10 days shy of his 28th birthday.
His devastated young widow, just 22 years old, moved to Naugatuck to be near the Poscavage family, and worked at UniRoyal. She remarried in 1963, remained in Naugatuck, and even coached swimming. Cynthia died in 1995.
Jake Gaudaur lost his best friend, and he carried that grief with him for the rest of his days. An accomplished artist, Gaudaur produced a charcoal portrait of Poscavage wearing his flyer’s headgear. Gaudaur kept the portrait in a private scrapbook. Gaudaur died in 2007, and the sketch remained hidden until daughter Diane uncovered it in 2010.
A trip to Naugatuck
Diane Gaudaur and her sister, Jackie, traced the histories of the young men who played in and won the most unique of all Grey Cup championships. Their work formed the basis for the TSN documentary, and eventually led to an emotional journey from their home in Ontario to Naugatuck to meet the surviving members of the Poscavage family.
Diane and Jackie visited Linda Tortorelli and her brother, the late John Blondis, in Blondis’ Prospect home in the spring of 2012. They brought framed copies of Gaudaur’s stunning charcoal sketch, and they listened to a record album of a Poscavage interview, intended for broadcast on WTIC radio. The recording was made days before his fatal mission.
“Being there, and making that connection, would have been so meaningful to my father,” Diane Gaudaur said. “I felt his presence while we were there, which is something I never felt before. It would have been as thrilling for him as it was for me.”
Tortorelli said that the contact from Diane Gaudaur, the many emails, photographs, and newspaper stories that followed, and the subsequent Canadian television documentary, gave her a new connection to the uncle she never knew.
“We have the letters that he sent home to my mother and grandmother,” Tortorelli said, “but all of this has brought him to life for us. I wish I had gotten to meet Diane’s father. I feel honored that (Diane and Jackie Gaudaur) would do this. I wish I knew about this a long time ago. Maybe it wouldn’t have made my mother or grandmother feel so heartbroken. It definitely helped me know him a little better. It changed my life.”
Diane Gaudaur said that Cynthia Poscavage called her father annually.
“She would always cry,” Gaudaur said. “I asked my father, ‘And what did you say to her?’ and he said nothing. This was not a chatty generation. Men were not over-sharing. And other than the teammates on that team, nobody knew this story. The is a new story for most of Canada. The players are all deceased. All that is left are the recollections of their children.”
Hall of Fame?
In 1972, Naugatuck held its first induction ceremony. More than 200 Borough sports luminaries have been enshrined. Edmund W. Poscavage is not one of them.
In fairness to the Borough Hall, an athlete needs to be nominated before he or she can be elected. When Poscavage’s Thunderbolt was shot down over Germany 67 years ago, his sports accomplishments and athletic prowess went down with him on that tragic day.
“When he died, the line was gone, and the name Poscavage was gone,” said a tearful Tortorelli, who said she will now work towards getting her uncle into the Naugatuck Hall of Fame. “He was handsome, a football and swimming star, he had it all. I wish I knew him. He had so much to live for. Who knows what he could have done.”
Ed Poscavage is the Naugatuck legend that no one knows. Poscavage was both star and hero, an all-state football player, a national record-setter, and a Canadian Grey Cup champion.
Hall of Famer? No doubt. Among the best ever from the NVL? I know of no man or woman more worthy of our acclaim.